The mainstream media nowadays loves to talk about Russian hackers. Donald Trump, in his bid for the presidency, has encouraged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email account to find her missing emails. Growing tensions between the U.S. and Russia have only been exacerbated by the possibility that Russia is actively breaking into encrypted U.S. voter databases. But one of the most important Russian hacks has actually come from a non-governmental group known as Fancy Bears.
The hacking group recently released numerous medical records for high-profile Olympic athletes including but far from limited to Simone Biles (USA, gymnastics), Rafael Nadal (Spain, tennis), and Bradley Wiggins (Great Britain, cycling). These records document therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs), which are exemptions that allow athletes with certain medical conditions to use otherwise banned substances. In certain cases, TUEs level the playing field for athletes with serious illnesses or disabilities. However, the system can be easily gamed, and Fancy Bears, in their initial post-hack manifesto, declared that these athletes “got their licenses for doping.”
Wiggins is one example where Fancy Bears may be correct. A professional cyclist since 2001, Wiggins has had numerous successes on both the track and the road, winning five gold medals, one silver, and two bronzes at the Olympic Games. Perhaps most notably, Wiggins won road cycling’s most prestigious race, the Tour de France, in 2012. In his biography, “My Time,” following his Tour win, Wiggins described how he never used injections for drugs, legal or otherwise. However, Fancy Bear’s hacks tell a different story. According to his medical records, Wiggins received intramuscular shots of the potent corticosteroid triamcinolone for pollen allergies and asthma right before the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, another highly prestigious race. Triamcinolone is banned by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA), so the only way to access it would be to get a TUE.
There is no inherent problem with Wiggins using TUEs, but triamcinolone is not the standard treatment for either allergies or asthma. Instead, drugs that are inhaled, such as salbutamol, are much more common. In addition, the timing of his injections are suspect.
“You do have to think it is kind of coincidental that a big dose of intramuscular long-acting corticosteroids would be needed at that exact time before the most important race of the season,” Prentice Steffen, a former doctor of one of Wiggins’ old teams, told the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Another former British cyclist has condemned Wiggins’ use of triamcinolone. David Millar, banned for two years in 2004 after being caught using performance-enhancing drugs, has described Kenacort, the market name for triamcinolone, as one of the strongest drugs he ever took.
“Kenacort…was the only one you took and three days later you looked different,” Millar told The Guardian. “It’s quite scary because it’s catabolic so it’s eating into you. It felt destructive. It felt powerful.”
Wiggins technically did not break any rules in receiving corticosteroid injections. However, his case makes it clear that the system can be taken advantage of relatively easily. All an endeavoring athlete needs is a mild medical condition and a willingly melodramatic doctor. If doctors in California, for a bit of extra cash, are giving out medical marijuana cards to people who do not have medical conditions that would normally qualify under California state law, then it is easy to imagine that doctors for athletes who are paid millions of dollars per year are likely doing the same.
If TUEs are intended for specific medical issues, then Wiggins was almost certainly doping, albeit legally. Clearly, then, the TUE requisition and approval systems need to be reformed within both the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), cycling’s governing body, and WADA. However, real change is unlikely to occur. The incentives for both organizations is to allow doping to secretly continue, whether technically legal or not. Performance-enhancing drugs increase the spectacle of sports through incredible and outstanding athletic achievements that don’t seem naturally possible, perhaps because they’re not. The better athletes perform, the more money these organizations rake in, and inevitably that is what drives the policies of these organizations.
This is not just a European or Olympic issue. The NFL, NBA, and MLB all have TUE systems in place, and they are just as vulnerable to abuse as WADA’s system. Both the NFL and MLB have Adderall abuse problems because of the additional energy and focus that the amphetamine provides. If Adderall is used throughout professional American sports, with millions of dollars on the line, surely more potent drugs are used just as commonly. Steroids, HGH, and other powerful substances appear ideal for athletes who want to maintain high levels of muscle mass.
The problem of doping, both legal and illegal, is not disappearing anytime soon. The incentives for the practice to vanish simply do not exist. Continuing institutionalized substance abuse is financially beneficial for both organizations and athletes. Despite this, there is no reason to kid ourselves and remain ignorant of what is going on behind closed doors. We should be able to both enjoy the spectacle these professional athletes provide and be aware of what was necessary to achieve it.